Saturday, February 14, 2015

"By Hand and Eye" by George Walker and Jim Tolpin

I have been reading and rereading parts of "By Hand and Eye" by George Walker and Jim Tolpin for a few weeks now, digesting the implications (available here: It is a fascinating read, and its effect on me has been a bit like an alarm call.  It is not the tune of the call (the book is longer than it needs to be), but it is the act of calling that is so significant (it wakes you up!)

Design prior to the Industrial Revolution was a very different process.  Before the age of machines, artisans very seldom measured anything: no technical drawings, only the crudest of rulers.  Instead, artisans dealt in geometry.  It did not matter how tall a column was, but that its height was five times that of the pedestal.  Design was not about precision, but proportion.  And everything was in proportion--from the smallest detail to the largest dimension.  These ratios were based on some fundamental "unit," an element of the piece upon which all other parts were related (in the case of a column, the pedestal).  The authors describe how, with a divider in hand, they explored various designs (furniture, architectural elements, etc...) and found all of these fantastic whole-number proportions: halves, thirds, quarters, fifths, eights.  Once you unlock the piece, that is find the unit, this sort of "frozen music" emerges, a symphony in form: "octave, fifth, fourth, fifth, octave."

The key tool in this type of design was the divider, with which you could step out these ratios.  And if you were going to reproduce a design, you just needed to know the "musical score," as there were no measured drawings: the width of the drawer is five times its height, the casing of the window is 1/6 the width, etc...  The height of this form of design was the "Classical Orders," and studying them was a crucial way that artisans educated themselves.  A bit like practicing the musical scales, drawing and redrawing Ionic columns and the like woke one's eye to these relationships and trained artisans in proper proportions.

Why did all of this end?  As the Industrial Revolution erupted, machines took over production from artisans.  Rather than tools being an extension of the maker, the maker became an extension of the machine.  And machines don't deal in ratios; they need cold numbers.  And so, measurement overtook proportions as the currency of design, and the "frozen music" of pre-industrial design was largely lost from made objects.

One interesting legacy of this age of designing "by hand and eye" had to do with counting on one's fingers.  Pre-industrial designers did not like counting by tens as we do today.  For adding and subtracting, tens are very logical, but for ratios, tens are very limiting.  You can only break them down into 1/2 and 1/5th.  Instead, designers preferred to count in twelves, which break down into all sorts of great ratios: 1/2, 1/3, 1/4, 1/6.  And so they learned to count to twelve on their fingers!  Using their thumb as a pointer, they would count the digits on the remaining four fingers, creating ratios of twelve.  I had always wondered why the imperial system was based on twelve inches.  Such an odd way to measure things (but a great way to create ratios!)

This has gotten me thinking about spoon design.  What are the proportions that work best for eating spoons?  What is the unit of measurement?  For a while I messed around with length as the unit, with each part of the spoon taking up one third of the total: bowl, stem, handle.  How long should an eating spoon be?  Taking a cue from Walker and Tolpin, I used a body measurement: the span of my hand.  (By the way, the metal soup spoons in my kitchen are about the span of a hand.)  This worked OK, but really the crucial measurement of an eating spoon is not its length.  It is the width of the bowl.  If you are going to put the spoon in your mouth, it can only be so wide (I realize some eating spoons are made for "sipping" and are not supposed to fit in the mouth).  Once you determine the ideal bowl width, all other elements of the spoon grow in proportion to that.  You scale it down for the details, and scale it up for the overall dimensions.

I will add some drawings I have made when I can get near a scanner...  More to come.


  1. Looking forward to reading more, Eric. Great job presenting some very thoughtful and insightful points derived from the book. Decimals, shmecimals! By the way, nice tie-in with Charlie Chaplin's "Modern Times." I love that movie.

    1. Thanks Dave. I should have added that it was you that recommended the book to me! Modern Times is a great one. I show the first twenty minutes every year during the industrialization/unionization unit for US History. And hey, that was an amazing goose bowl the other day! Wow. And I am loving your blog. Super helpful. E